BOSTON — A playoff series truly turns when the home team loses on its own floor, so even if the Boston Celtics win tonight and the Wizards hold serve at home in Games 3 and 4 nothing has really changed.
But a 2-0 lead would put the pressure on the No. 4 seed to be flawless to get back level in the East semifinals.
So how do the Wizards do it?
It's simple in theory.
The Celtics aren't anywhere near the most talented team in the league, or even in their own conference despite their No. 1 seed. They play disciplined basketball, however, with an IQ that has to be matched. This is what the Wizards did wrong, and what they'll have to do better.
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If they get the split, blowing the 17-point lead in Game 1 Sunday doesn't matter quite as much:
7. Exploit Isaiah Thomas' inability to defend.
If the Celtics continue to try to hide the 5-9 point guard on the 6-8 Otto Porter, run him off curls or run pick-and-roll with him to force the switch onto John Wall and Bradley Beal. The reason is twofold: the Celtics switch everything and getting him on a three-point shooter like Beal is an easier look for him than vs. Avery Bradley who is bigger, stronger, and an All-NBA caliber defender. If Porter runs off curls, Thomas will usually have trouble getting over the screens of bigs and trail the play making him not much of a threat to recover and contest. If the big steps up to help, that opens a path for Porter who is an adept passer to leave it for a layup to his big diving to the basket. That'll force the Celtics to change their coverages or pull Thomas off the floor. Chances are they'll stick with him but regardless of how much he scores he has to be made a liability on every possession possible and he might get himself into foul trouble.
6. Ball pressure at the high and pinch posts.
That's where Al Horford does his best work. He executes dribble handoffs and pitches to the wings and screens to get them in the paint. He sets flare screens for three-point shooters. When they go to high/low action -- see his entry passes to Kelly Olynyk when defended by a smaller defender en route to 10 assists for Horford -- it's an easy feed at the rim. Being more aggressive with Horford doesn't allow him the comfort of surveying his options.
5. Blow up screens.
Rather than allowing the screens to come and then trying to respond, which often means the guards getting pinned underneath, the Wizards have to not only anticipate, but fight over the top. It not only throws off the timing of the offense but forces the ball farther out of their preferred operational zone. There were opportunites to shoot the gaps on the handoffs but that didn't happen enough.
4. Don't overhelp off three-point shooters.
Even below average long-ballers such as Marcus Smart can't find their mark if you give them room and time to line up a look. Jae Crowder is a good three-point shooter at 40% for the season. But he's not going to shoot 6-for-8 unless he can get the space he was allowed in Game 1. Give up a mid-range two-point shot before an open three-point shot. Even if they make them all, that's 19 fewer points for Boston which would've translated into 104 total points Sunday instead of 123. Lose some small battles to win the war.
3. Don't wait. Dictate.
When the Celtics run double high screens for Thomas, for instance, don't allow him to choose which side he wants to go to with the ball. He's almost always going to choose left, which is his strong hand, drive back the big (while Thomas' man is likely pinned underneath) and pull up for the 5-foot floater. If the big comes up to stop him, he has to be high enough to contest the the pull up. Thomas had too much space. The defense has to force him to go where it wants him to go and make him take the shots they want him to take, not vice versa. Horford can't be allowed to dribble under the three-point line because by the time he hands off, the guard or wing player is in the paint and the defense is officially compromised.
2. Get back to set off misses and don't gamble.
Thomas' first two made three-pointers came off misses in close by Marcin Gortat and Bradley Beal. The first one was easy because Wall went for a steal in the passing lane, missed and Thomas was wide open. When Kelly Oubre stayed in front and used his 7-2 wingspan to contest Thomas, he missed. Thomas might still get his points but make him take more shots to get them.
The Wizards only had 13 which isn't that bad, but eight came in the third quarter when the game turned. Five of those came from Wall as he drove into three defenders. Putting Boston in transition and matching up with shooters becomes difficult because ultimately there's a mismatch as defenders are forced to take the closest man. The ball movement almost always finds the right person. Ten of their third-quarter points came off the giveaways. The Celtics went 6-for-13 on threes in that period alone.
Even with their roster not at full-strength, the Wizards' best talent is better than Boston's, but the Celtics stayed discipline which allowed them to get back into the game and win.
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